The executive director of Milwaukee’s Jewish Council for Community Relations received an unexpected invitation last week.
Paula Simon was part of a small group of the city’s Jewish and Catholic leadership invited to the home of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, to discuss interfaith relations in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to end the Vatican’s ban against a bishop who had denied the Holocaust. The invitation from the archbishop came just days before he, head of Milwaukee’s Catholic diocese for seven years, was named by the pope to succeed Cardinal Edward Egan as archbishop of New York City’s diocese.
“He wanted to get a pulse of the Jewish community,” Simon said. “He wanted to make sure that we understood that what the pope did did not reflect what he [Archbishop Dolan] felt.”
Simon, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, said the archbishop apologized for the impression given by the pope’s action that the Catholic Church condones denial of the Holocaust’s historical authenticity. “We’re embarrassed. This is inappropriate,” she reported the archbishop as saying about lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, who has said the Holocaust was exaggerated and no Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers.
“He could have sent a quick note or e-mail” to express his feelings, Simon said. “It could have been done in a phone call.”
“You can’t put a value on that kind of relationship,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s not lip service. It’s real.”
Simon cited the meeting, and the archbishop’s unsolicited outreach to Milwaukee’s Jewish community, as the latest examples of Dolan’s “personal commitment to interfaith issues” that have included one-on-one meetings with Jewish leaders as well as more formal interaction.
Other representatives of Milwaukee’s Jewish community and spokesmen for national Jewish organizations praised Archbishop Dolan as a charismatic member of the clergy who will help to restore Jewish-Catholic relations that have stalled in recent years because of several divisive issues. They said the archbishop, with a more effusive personal style, is likely to bring a new tone to interfaith activities here, which were cool under Cardinal Edward Egan, New York’s outgoing archbishop.
During an introductory press conference here on Monday, the archbishop called his work in Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Milwaukee, and before that in St. Louis, “intensely rewarding and enriching.”
With Dolan’s arrival here, “The issue of dialogue is back on the agenda,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman said ties between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church, which grew warmer in the early 1960s after the Vatican II changes supported by Pope John XXIII, have cooled in the last few years because of such issues as the Latin prayer for the conversion of Jews, attempts by some hardliners to repeal Vatican II and the statements of Bishop Williamson.
“These are chips in the relationship,” Foxman said, adding that the leader of New York’s Catholics automatically becomes a leading voice in interfaith work because of the size of the city’s Jewish and Catholic populations. “We need to put Jewish-Catholic relations back on the track.”
While the archbishop is considered a hardliner on many Catholic issues like abortion and celibacy of priests, his conservative outlook is not expected to detract from his work with the Jewish community, Foxman said. “He is an open person, open to people and ideas.”
As a participant in the Conference of Bishops’ interfaith activities, Archbishop Dolan worked closely with Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, who chaired the conference’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and served as the church’s point man with the Jewish community. With Cardinal Keeler, at 77, in poor health, Archbishop Dolan — likely to be elevated soon to cardinal — will be in position to play a greater role in ecumenical affairs on a national scale, the Jewish interfaith leaders said.
“I never got the sense that he wanted to backtrack on [the ecumenical liberalizations advanced by] Vatican II,” said Rabbi David Cohen, spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, who had worked with the archbishop on interfaith activities.
“He will perforce become much more active,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser.
Archbishop Dolan, 59, is an author who has written three books on Catholic spirituality, and a raconteur who is viewed as warmer and more accessible — according to members of the Catholic and Jewish communities — than his predecessor, Cardinal Egan.
In one well-publicized incident, Archbishop Dolan presided at an open-air Mass while wearing a “cheese-head” hat popular among Green Bay Packer fans.
Rabbi Rudin said Archbishop Dolan “is going to bring back some of the style of O’Connor,” referring to Cardinal John O’Connor, a gregarious man who preceded Cardinal Egan as leader of the New York Diocese. “I think New York’s Jewish community will take to him, and he to the community.”
Simon said the archbishop “understands the intrinsic value of interfaith relations, particularly relations with the Jewish community.”
While the Milwaukee diocese was forced in recent months to reduce its budget because of the deepening recession, Archbishop Dolan retained funding for the department that conducts ecumenical activities with the Jewish community, she said. “That attests to his commitment.”
When hosting interfaith meetings, the archbishop would call the Jewish participants in advance to determine their kashrut preferences, said Rabbi Ronald Shapiro of Milwaukee’s Congregation Shalom.
The rabbi was invited by the archbishop to take part in a memorial service for the late Pope John Paul II, recite Kaddish in the pope’s memory and explain the meaning of the Aramaic prayer.
Archbishop Dolan was part of an interfaith mission that visited Auschwitz in 2005 under the aegis of Sacred Heart University’s Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding.
“Though I had no doubt that he [previously] understood the significance of the Holocaust,” the visit to the death camp “reinforced the responsibility that religious leaders have” in fighting discrimination.
“He was deeply moved at Auschwitz,” said Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who was also on the 2005 mission. Rabbi Blanchard, director of organizational development at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said the archbishop “really understands human vulnerability.”
Rabbi Marc Berkson, spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee and past president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, called the archbishop “a very pragmatic man. His involvement with the Jewish community deepened over time.”
Rabbi Berkson tells of a speech Archbishop Dolan gave at a Friday night service at Milwaukee’s Congregation Shalom in 2005.
Beginning his speech with a remark that “If I seem a bit distracted it’s only because, usually, I’m the only one in the room wearing a yarmulke,” the archbishop went on to talk about Jewish scriptures, John XXIII, John Paul II, Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“I am so shaken and saddened by the crimes, bigotry, violence and hatred that have been visited upon you by spiritual relatives of mine whose hideous actions pervert the genuine teaching of Jesus and His Church,” he said.
“The talk he gave that night was damn impressive,” Rabbi Berkson said. “You guys are very lucky to be getting him in New York.”
During his speech in Congregation Shalom, the rabbi said, Archbishop Dolan called that Shabbat’s bar mitzvah boy to the bima and gave him the pink skullcap the archbishop had worn on his head.
The youth wore the pink kipa the next day at his bar mitzvah, and “the kid still treasures that kipa,” Rabbi Berkson said.
Simon said the archbishop, following the recent meeting with Jewish leaders, communicated his feeling about the Bishop Williamson controversy to priests in the Milwaukee diocese. “His heart is there. His passion is there. Theologically, he is there.”
At the meeting, she asked Archbishop Dolan about reports that he would be leaving for New York. “The rumors were flying last week.” The archbishop confirmed that he was among six finalists for the New York position.
“I am disappointed that he’s leaving,” Simon said. But she is not surprised. “Many people thought he was a rising star when he came to Milwaukee.”